at Battersea Arts Centre, Monday 24th February 2014
Karaoke is a strange, strange concept. Try explaining it to an alien: “Well, you go to a bar full of strangers and get up to sing a song you probably know really well but they put the words and instructions on the screen anyway”. Weird, right? It’s an odd, but peculiarly pervasive phenomenon, exacerbated (I imagine) by TV talent shows and sing-a-long video games, allowing everyone their two-hundred-and-fifteen second of fame as they (badly) sing lyrics to a synthy backing track. In Karaoke, Sleepwalk Collective take this idea and project it onto a theatrical setting, asking what a ‘play’ may look like if performed by people reading off a screen and rigidly following its instructions.
The first fifteen minutes are predictable enough; our performers (Sammy Metcalfe and iara Solano Arana) read out verbose and existential contemplations from a small TV screen whose words are also projected onto a back wall. They introduce us to the show, play around a little with the form and gesture towards the ridiculousness of the whole event. Ethereal come-down music plays underneath it all, acting as the bed on which these lyrics rest.
Then things start getting interesting. The screen tells the pair to strike a number of poses, from “music video” to “porn actors”, but on “incestuous siblings”, they stop and stare. Another handful of poses are suggested, and they remain immovable. We begin to read onto these two lifeless bodies the scenarios described, and the show begins its contemplation on the very nature of theatre itself, considering the idea of metaphor and performance before taking a detour to consider the apocalypse and nuclear Armageddon.
You become hyper-aware of the ‘character’, as it were, of the karaoke machine itself, which spits out words for others to say to an audience whilst simultaneously speaking to those people directly. It is, therefore, both conduit and speaker, actor and playwright, and throws up powerful questions about control and agency. Why do these people unthinkingly follow the words displayed in front of them? Seeing as we only see them through the language of ‘someone else’, do we really see them as they are?
Karaoke also displays a fascinating relationship between text and action, as the duo performing these words somehow do by saying. In the repetition of language, they enact something other than themselves even though we can see clearly they are simply performers reading out words on a screen. Their deadpan, nonplussed delivery only adds to the effect, outlining how a piece which defines itself as “anti-theatrical” can be supremely and vehemently “theatrical”. In fact, at times, Karaoke could even be described as “anti-theatre” in its attack on people who go to see shows to “think that they’re thinking and feel like they’re feeling”, but in doing so seems to be a manifesto for theatre in its fundamental form.
The sheer experience of the show is, in its way, testament to that. Though the concept sounds simple, it reveals itself to be richer than first imagined, time and time again. As we delve deeper into the text, as the lights shift to another dazzling array of technicolour and as the show continues to break its own rules, the tiny assemblage created adds up to something verging on transcendent. You allow yourself to be transported to this strange world where people communicate via karaoke and bodies covered in dust lay dormant by inflatable palm trees. It’s so evocative, even, that the final sharp decline into nihilism takes you by surprise, tugging you out of this strange, contemplative and indulgent reverie to thrust the world’s uselessness into your frontal lobe. And though I don’t necessarily agree with the show’s pessimistic and somewhat hedonistic tone in these final moments, there’s no denying that it holds a bizarre power and that the forced abandon we witness this of this pair is, like the show’s namesake, both glorious and mortifying.